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Spyware: What It Is, How It Works, and How to Prevent It

You might feel safe while using your phone or laptop packed with all the latest security features. However, it might not be entirely true sometimes. There may be something in your machine that tracks you all the time without you knowing. That culprit could be spyware.

Spyware is software that tracks your internet surfing and device activities. It operates secretly and slowly consumes resources on your computer so that you won’t notice it. Then, it sends information about you to a third party.

It’s becoming a big problem for computers everywhere. Over the past years, the amount of spyware installed on computers has grown enormously. It’s especially prevalent in the United States. According to one survey, nearly 30% of all U.S. households have at least one computer with spyware.

So far, there has been countless spyware developed, and the latest (and probably the most frightening) one is Pegasus.

What is Pegasus?

Pegasus is the most powerful spyware developed to date. It was first discovered in 2016 when it was used for spear phishing (by tricking the target into clicking on a malicious link sent via message or email).

The Israeli company NSO Group has developed this hacking software that can infect billions of phones running the iOS or Android operating systems. It is marketed and licensed to governments worldwide, but its capabilities are too much for private citizens looking to be safe from cybersecurity threats. The concerns become even more severe when such a powerful tool is suspected of targeting activists and outspoken individuals.

Its capabilities are off the charts, such as:

  • It can monitor your personal and private activities for as long as necessary.
  • The spyware can generate copies of messages you send or receive.
  • It can easily get your mobile photos and record your voice calls.
  • It can also secretly film you through your phone’s camera.
  • It can activate the microphone to record conversations or access your mobile GPS to access your location.

All of this can happen while you don’t know anything about it. Pegasus excels in the covert operation style. Thus, victims typically have no idea whether their device is infected.

How does Spyware Work?

The basic motive of spyware is to infiltrate a device, primarily a phone. Though it can be distributed in a number of ways, one of the most common ways to distribute spyware software is by a malicious clickable link.

These links are very intelligently presented in front of the user in the form of:

  • Emails that seem like sent from a legitimate organization like your bank.
  • Pop-up window in a browser that asks you to install an app or redirects you to an unknown webpage.
  • Text messages with a malicious link.
  • Misleading or dangerous ads on web pages delivered through legitimate ad networks are known as malvertising. It redirects the users to a different webpage where the malicious code is embedded.

Pegasus, on the other hand, can infect your phone by:

  • Tricking the target user into clicking on a malicious external link.
  • By exploiting “zero-day” vulnerabilities. It means that it can infect your phone by exploiting flaws and bugs in the operating system that manufacturers like Apple and Google do not know yet.

Once successfully planted, it can easily access your SMS, emails, WhatsApp chat, microphone, camera, GPS data, calendar data, etc.

What Kinds of Spyware are there?

Though, there are many of them. But, if we talk about those that can affect your gadgets, we can shortlist four, namely, the following. While some of them have legitimate purposes (like cookies), you should know that they can have negative effects on your privacy.

  1. Cookie Trackers. This type of spyware can secretly keep track of your browsing history or downloads to devise valuable insights like your interests. Based on this, ads are targeted to you in the browser.
  2. System Monitors. This spyware is primarily used to track users’ system or mobile activities to understand their behavior. The parameters tracked are keystrokes, chats, emails, websites visited, programs launched, etc.
  3. Adware. This is just like the cookie tracker that accesses your browser history and downloads to understand what you like and target ads to you.
  4. Trojan. This is spyware that will look like a legitimate software that you need to download. Once you have it on your device, it will take control of all your sensitive information.

Preventive Measures Against Tracking

After reading so far, it may seem like there is no way to prevent spying. However, there are some methods by which you can keep it out of your devices.

  • Pop-up blocker. Install a powerful pop-up blocker that can block all the malicious ads.
  • Focus on the terms and conditions. Yes, these may seem boring, but they can help you understand how the software gathers information and how it is used. It can help in preventing spyware.
  • Keep a check on emails and app installs. Ensure you keep a close check while installing apps or opening emails. They are the hotspots of spyware. Refrain from installing apps from unauthorized sources.
  • Protect your online traffic. Data exchanged insecurely could be stolen in transit. Thus, install a VPN to ensure that all information you exchange travels safely.
  • Get a robust anti-malware or anti-virus tool. These programs can detect suspicious behavior happening on your device. Also, be sure to keep track of all applications installed.

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